It's not often that Australian teams win big on the international stage, or against international teams. If anything, it's an upset, an aberration that's quickly rectified in the matches to come. But that was not the story from Rift Rivals this year.
For the uninitiated, Rift Rivals is a mid-split international held by Riot, where the best teams from two or three regions combine for a grand tournament that's spread out over the course of a week. Different regions are grouped together into teams, squaring off against their foreign rivals (a little similar to the Ryder Cup, without the draws or changes in match formats).
For Australians, that meant OPL regulars Legacy Esports, Chiefs Esports Club and Dire Wolves played the best teams from the LoL Japan League and the SEA Tour, the professional League of Legends circuit for Southeast Asia.
A shot of the different Rift Rivals tournaments held across the world. Image: Riot Games
Because each of the various League regions were divvied up into different tournaments, fans got different storylines to follow. Australians got to see how the top OPL teams fared in an international-worthy competition, without the misery of getting pulled apart by South Korean precision, the latest demolition derby from Europe, or North America's biggest names.
Likewise, American fans got to see how their favourites fared against Europe. The event offered some insight how teams like Team Liquid and Echo Fox might fare at Worlds later this year, although as the tournament panned out, it became clear that Echo Fox still has a lot of work to do.
Liquid held their own much better, but even in the finals they couldn't prevent themselves from being pulled to pieces by G2 Esports (and dropping their set against Splyce in the knockout stage).
— lolesports (@lolesports) July 7, 2018
So while Americans had to watch their stars get systematically broken down, and China's best defeated their Korean counterparts in a cracking best-of-five, Australians filled out Sydney's State Theatre for something a little unusual: not one, two, but three Australian teams turning in sound, and at points comprehensive, victories.
By the end of the first day, Oceania was a reasonable 2-1, with Chiefs and Dire Wolves notching wins against DetonatioN FocusMe (from Japan) and Kuala Lumpur Hunters. Australia's three teams would drop only one more game for the rest of the group stage, after Mineski tore Legacy to pieces.
Chiefs and Dire Wolves, however, had no qualms putting away their opponents. Dire Wolves didn't drop a single set throughout the group stages, and after their loss on day one, Chiefs went on an unbroken streak that carried throughout the finals.
As an extra morale boost, Legacy would recover from their middling group performance in a patient affair against Ascension Gaming. It took almost 13 minutes before the first champion fell. Legacy went on to take the next three team fights, helped by some outstanding bubbles from Legacy's captain, Claire.
Chiefs followed that performance with wins against Mineski and Kuala Lumpur Hunters, sealing the win for the Oceanic region 3-1 and giving the scene a much needed morale boost after years of close-but-no-cigar attempts at qualifying for Worlds. (The structure for Worlds was changed last year to include a "Play-In" stage, which was essentially an expanded qualifying stage before the Worlds group stage proper. Dire Wolves represented OCE at the play-in stage, but were knocked out by Team oNe after losing a tiebreaker.)
Naturally, it's worth keeping all of this in perspective. The only wins that ultimately matter will be ones at Worlds, although the Rift Rivals format is a vastly more interesting format than all-stars style affairs. Apart from featuring more teamwork than what you'd get from combining players who don't play together, Rift Rivals also gives teams a good boost of morale heading into the next split - and some much-needed information about their capacity to adapt to the strategies and styles that develop in different regions.
Of course, a win against one of the top three teams from North America, China, Europe or South Korea would mean a hell of a lot more than the performance of Chiefs, Legacy and Dire Wolves at the State Theatre. But it's not a meaningless win either. Should Riot continually expand their major tournaments - Rift Rivals, the mid-year MSI and of course, Worlds - to give more direct representation to our part of the world, performances like this will give OCE a strong case for a second seed.
So it's worth looking at Rift Rivals with a longer lens. Some things haven't changed: Chiefs and Dire Wolves are still the strongest teams in OCE. But being able to cope with an all-in, scrappy style of fighting is good experience to have under your belt, and given Australia's track record in international tournaments of all forms over the last year or so, it's nice to be able to take one trophy home.